Interview with Elinor Florence, author of Bird's Eye View

Interview with Elinor Florence, author of Bird's Eye View

Posted on December 15 by Elinor Florence
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Bird’s Eye View is the unforgettable story of an idealistic young farm girl from Saskatchewan who is working as a newspaper reporter at the outbreak of World War Two. When her town becomes a British Commonwealth Air Training Base, Rose Jolliffe is fired with patriotism and wangles her way overseas, where she joins the air force and becomes an aerial photographic interpreter.

Working with hundreds of intelligence officers at a converted mansion in England called RAF Medmenham, she spies on the enemy from the sky, watching the war unfold through her magnifying glass, and makes several critical discoveries. Lonely and homesick, Rose keeps in touch with the home front through constant letters from her family and friends.

And throughout the war, she literally has a bird’s eye view of the Canadian experience – at Dieppe, in the skies over Germany, on the beaches of Normandy -- and finally, when our country shared in the Allied victory.

*****

Why did you become interested in the World War Two era?

My family members on both sides served in both wars, including my father who went overseas with the RCAF in World War Two. And my mother, who was the postmaster’s daughter in Battleford, Saskatchewan, had a first-hand view of the war when our town was chosen as a British Commonwealth Air Training Base.

After the war, my parents purchased a former wartime airfield near Battleford and turned it into a farm. There were several buildings on the property, and the house where I grew up was a former barracks building. So from an early age, I was conscious of the part that our home had played in the war, and heard many interesting stories from both my parents.

For more, click: Growing Up With Air Force Ghosts.

How did you become interested in the topic of aerial photo interpretation?

I began my journalism career as a newspaper reporter in my home town – and in those days, we took our own photographs and printed them in our own darkroom, so I was interested in the process. One day I saw an old picture in a magazine of a woman wearing an air force uniform, studying an aerial photograph with a magnifying glass. I immediately thought: “I could have done that!” I didn’t research the book until years later, but that image always stuck in my head.

How did you research the topic of aerial photo interpretation?

I read everything I could find about this little-known subject, although there isn’t much. For some reason photo interpretation hasn’t achieved the glamour status of code-breaking at Bletchley Park, but it was just as important.

I relied heavily on a book by a female interpreter named Constance Babington Smith. She wrote her book called Evidence in Camera about her wartime experiences.

To read more, click: The Woman With the X-Ray Eyes.

The interpreters were stationed at a mansion on the Thames River, called RAF Medmenham. Now it is a luxury hotel called Danesfield House. The hotel was in the news recently, because George and Amal Clooney had their wedding reception there!

At the start of the war, there were only 40 photo interpreters – and by the end of the war, there were more than 600. More than half of them were women. Women were good at interpretation, probably due to their meticulous attention to detail.

I have a personal anecdote about Danesfield House. While researching my novel, my husband and I visited this gorgeous hotel. As we were walking about the grounds and I was waxing poetic to my husband: “Look, there’s the Thames and that’s the view Rose saw from her window, etc.” a well-dressed elderly woman approached me and asked me politely what I was talking about.

When I explained, she introduced herself as Eileen Scott, a former member of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force who had served at RAF Medmenham. In spite of living nearby, she hadn’t returned to the station since 1945!

Naturally, I was delighted. I whisked her off to the dining room for lunch, pulled out my notebook and plied her with questions. Her answers provided several nuggets of realistic details for my book. Mrs. Scott has since passed away, but I’m in contact with her son Neil and we hope to meet in England next year.

For more, click: RAF Medmenham: Where the Magic Happened.

What makes your heroine unusual?

To my knowledge – and readers can correct me if I’m wrong – this is the only novel ever written in which the protagonist is a Canadian woman serving in the Royal Canadian Air Force. The contribution of Canadian women in uniform during the war has been sadly overlooked.

At first they weren’t allowed to join the armed forces. In 1941, after mounting pressure from women across the country, Parliament finally agreed to enlist women. And during that short four-year period from July 1941 to the end of the war, 50,000 Canadian women joined up!

That is a tremendous number of women, especially considering our small population at the time. Yet there isn’t much written about them in the history books. I relied on a few non-fiction books such as Dundurn author Carolyn Gossage’s Greatcoats and Glamour Boots.

What makes your book essentially Canadian?

It is Canadian to the core. Not only is my heroine Rose watching the war on the continent unfold through Canadian eyes, but I wanted my readers to know what the people back home were doing. So I prepared sort of a running commentary on the war through letters that Rose receives from her family and friends back home in Saskatchewan. In order to write those letters, I read hundreds of wartime letters and I also imagined myself writing to my own daughters overseas.

Letters are an important part of the book, just as they were the lifeline that connected people overseas to their loved ones back home. And Canadians probably endured the longest separations of people from any country. The British guys and even the Germans went home on leaves. Yet some Canadians left in 1939 and didn’t get home until 1946. Homesickness for Canada is a powerful theme that runs throughout the book.

I know that you also write a popular blog called Wartime Wednesdays. How did that come about?

While waiting for my book to be published, I sorted through my research and realized how much information I had collected that would never make it into a book. I had interviewed a number of veterans, for example, and I wanted to tell their stories.

So over a year ago, I began to write a weekly blog (really it’s just an old-fashioned newspaper article, but with more photographs) telling true stories about Canadians during wartime.

Wartime Wednesdays has now taken on a life of its own. I have thousands of visitors and I receive emails from people all over the world. It is a lot of work, but very satisfying. To read it, click Wartime Wednesdays.

Elinor Florence

Posted by Dundurn Guest on December 6, 2014
Elinor Florence photo

Elinor Florence

Elinor Florence is an author and journalist whose career spans five provinces, from editing daily newspapers, including the Winnipeg Sun, to writing for Reader’s Digest Canada, and publishing her own award-winning community newspaper. Her historical novel Bird’s Eye View is a Canadian bestseller. Elinor grew up on a Saskatchewan farm and now lives in the mountain resort town of Invermere, British Columbia.